[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]
When my wife Ann turned forty, I threw a surprise birthday party for her. Friends from Columbus, our first parish in northwest Ohio, and our then-current parish in Cincinnati packed the place. When Ann and I walked in and people shouted, “Surprise!” she was truly shocked! Our friends, our kids, and I had done such a good job of keeping the thing secret that Ann turned to me and asked, “Did you know about this?”
I love surprises! The first Easter came as a complete surprise to Jesus’ first disciples, although it shouldn’t have. Jesus had “let the cat out of the bag,” so to speak, many times.
For example, in Mark 8:31, we’re told: “[Jesus] then began to teach [the disciples] that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”
In Mark 9:31, we read: “He said to them, ‘The Son of Man [Jesus’ characteristic way of referring to Himself, based on passages from the Old Testament book of Daniel. The Son of Man] is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”
In Mark 10:33-34, we see: “[Jesus] said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’”
And if all that wasn’t clear enough, in Mark 14:28, Jesus even had told them where He was going to meet them after He had risen. Back home in Galilee. “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
Jesus’ first followers had no trouble imagining that Jesus could be killed. Like most of us, they had experienced death.
They had also seen the savage ways in which others were treated by the puppet king Herod, his overlords, the Romans, and even the Jewish religious authorities. The entire Roman Empire, including their conquered homeland, was riddled with the crosses on which all manner of people, innocent and guilty, had been executed.
But it seems that every time Jesus mentioned that He would rise again, it didn’t register with the disciples. They couldn’t get past death.
People still have the same incapacitated imaginations, unable to conceive that the God Who made this amazing if fallen universe, could start life all over again in the Person of the sinless God and man, Jesus.
Truth be told, we who confess Christ sometimes doubt. It seems impossible that a cross, or an electric chair, a lethal injection, a fatal heart attack, a terminal disease, can lead anywhere but to a grave. That’s why Easter is always a surprise!
Let’s look at at the gospel writer Mark’s account of that first Easter Sunday, beginning at Mark 16:1: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.”
Jewish days started and ended at sundown. After Jesus drew His last breath on the cross, it was nearly sundown, almost the start of a new day, in this case the start of the Sabbath, a Saturday. To have handled Jesus’ body on the Sabbath would have made the pious Jews who made up the original band of Christian disciples unclean, and so unable to participate in the Passover. So, Jesus had been put into a burial tomb before sunset.
The usual practice was for the bodies of the dead to be anointed with spices, then washed, before being wrapped in burial cloths and placed in a tomb. Anointing was an important precaution. In the heat of the Middle East, bodies decomposed and stank quickly. And since the tombs were reopened frequently for the entombing of others, the spices lessened the odor as the bodies decomposed. (By the way, in these tombs, bodies would be allowed to decompose and, after a year, the bones placed in small boxes called ossuaries.) So, the women who went to the tomb shortly after sunrise did so not just to honor Jesus, but also to perform a practical task.
Verses 2 and 3: “Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’”
The stones that covered the entrances to tombs were large disks that rolled through channels. To roll them away would usually have required the efforts of more than a few strong men.
The women probably hoped that the Roman soldiers who had been placed at the tomb to prevent Jesus’ body from being robbed would move the stone for them. After all, they might have reasoned, how threatening could a dead Jewish Messiah be to them, or to anyone?
It’s always been interesting to me that, despite the impediment of the stone, the women went to the tomb anyway, a lesson in faith we all need to learn: Because the God we know in Jesus is always dependable, we can trust that He will always make a way for us to do what He calls us to do, even when it seems impossible.
Verses 4 and 5: “But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.”
Angels, God’s messengers, almost always appear to human beings as young men dressed in white.
In the original Greek, Mark doesn’t say that the women were “alarmed”; the Greek word is exethambēthēsan, meaning that they were amazed, astonished, awestruck, terrified. This was no ordinary man in white and the women seemed to know it immediately.
Verses 6 and 7: “‘Don’t be alarmed [Don’t be amazed],’ [the angel] said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’’”
The angel’s message to the women? “Surprise!” The risen Jesus was going to meet His disciples in Galilee just as He had promised.
Death was not the end of God the Son.
Death could not contain a sinless Savior Who died on behalf of sinners like you and me.
And death cannot--and will not-- contain any who, at the prompting of God’s Holy Spirit, in response to the witness of God’s Word, dare to turn from their sin and to entrust their whole lives to Jesus, to believe in Him.
As Jesus told the sister of a friend He would raise from the dead: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” And then He asks her the same question this Easter Sunday morning calls you and me to answer today and each day of our lives on earth, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
Do you believe that no matter what your sins, no matter what your inadequacies, no matter what your flaws. no matter what your doubts, you can believe that Jesus is capable of surprising you daily with new power for living, new integrity, new hope, new peace?
Do you believe that even after the last clump of dirt has been thrown on top of your casket because you believe in Jesus, you will live again with God eternally?
Verse 8: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
There is debate among New Testament scholars, liberal, conservative, and otherwise, as to whether verse 8 is how Mark originally ended his gospel.
If it is, it would indicate that Mark wanted his readers, including you and me, to experience the same awe, astonishment, and fear that enveloped the women as they fled the tomb. And to help us confront the same decision the women had to deal with as they fled the tomb: Is it true? Is Jesus risen from the dead?
Soon, like the women as they left the tomb, you and I will leave here. Some will collect Easter flowers and head home. Some will go out for Easter dinner with family or friends.
But will we trust the Easter message or trust in the Savior the Easter message is about?
And, like the women after meeting the angel, will we weigh whether we should do what the angel told them to do, what Jesus Himself would later tell all who know about Easter’s greatest surprise are to do?
Later in Mark’s gospel, we learn that Jesus told the disciples: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16)
Easter is a surprise that our Lord wants us to share!
And, as the women on that first Easter were to learn, the blessings of Jesus’ resurrection surprise are only fully ours when we dare to tell others about it and how the risen Jesus is changing our lives. The Gospel is the only thing in the world that, the more we give it away, the more we have of it. Easter proves that you can never reach the end of God's grace given through Christ!
Jesus is risen! And it's a great surprise to share!
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]